Naadam is Mongolia's biggest and best festival, a summer fair featuring traditional sports, foods, and folk dancing. The festivities take place in nearly all provincial capitals, but the event is liveliest in the national capital, Ulaan Baatar.
As you might expect of a people who produced Genghis Khan, the festival is dominated by warrior-type activities, including the Eryn Gurvan Nadom, or Three Manly Sports: wrestling, archery, and horse racing.
The wrestling is quite different from western versions of the sport with contestants clad in tight briefs and a vest that covers the shoulders and upper arms leaving the chest bare. This outfit is worn to make it clear that both contestants are indeed men, a tradition dating back to the discovery, many centuries ago, that a champion wrestler was in fact a woman (to the great embarrassment of the men she had defeated). The wrestlers first swoop into the ring in imitation of the Garuda bird of Buddhist lore. When the referee signals the start, each tries to topple the other; the first to touch the ground with anything more than the soles of his feet loses. Then the loser must kneel while the winner makes a victory sign over his head.
Both women and men compete in the archery events, using short compound bows (which may have been invented by the Mongolians). Dell-clad competitors shoot at traditional leather targets stacked in piles. Points are scored for each target knocked down by a direct hit (no deflections!). The judges stand incredibly close to the targets, seemingly without ever the slightest concern for their own safety.
Mongolian horse racing is similar to a western steeplechase, conducted over a cross-country course at least 20 km/12 miles long. There are races for all riders and both sexes, but the crowd-pleaser is the children's division. In rural Mongolia, most children begin to ride in infancy, and their almost instinctive skill in horsemanship is clearly apparent. The children's race features boys and girls aged 7-12, wearing colourful traditional costumes.
Other horse races include blindfolded scrambles (by adults). Mongolia's resurgent nationalism combines with cash prizes to inspire vigorous competition. Symbols of Genghis Khan are everywhere. Warriors kneel and kiss a braided horsetail dedicated to him, and a white Genghis figure rides around the stadium mounted on a horse.
The Imaginative Traveller Naadam Festival tour is guaranteed to run and has limited spaces available, so to experience this magnificent festival, book your place today.
The Imaginative Traveller team
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